Cape Sarichef, Unimak Island

Cape Sarichef, Unimak Island

by | Jul 21, 2021

Cape Sarichef is located at the southwestern end of Unimak Island, at the northwestern entrance to Unimak Pass on the Bering Sea coast, and on the northwest flank of Pogromni Volcano, about 80 miles (129 km) northeast of Dutch Harbor and 63 miles (101 km) west-southwest of False Pass, Alaska.  The Aleut name for this point is Kakatkhusik based on a publication by Father Ivan Evseyevich Popov-Veniaminov in 1840. This name may be derived from the word “qakatikuqing” which according to Richard H. Geoghegan means “to grow dry”. Cape Sarichef was named in 1816 by explorer Otto von Kotzebue of the Imperial Russian Navy for Vice Admiral and Hydrographer Gavrila Andreivich Sarychev who explored the Arctic in 1787 and later served under Commodore Joseph Billings during explorations of the Bering Sea and Alaska in 1790-92. Sarychev compiled an atlas entitled “Atlas of the Northern Part of the Pacific Ocean” that was published in 1826. The only structures currently at Cape Sarichef are an active navigation aid colocated with an abandoned U.S. Coast Guard LORAN Station. On a ridge about 2 miles (3.2 km) east-southeast from the cape are the remains of a massive Cold War-era Cape Sarichef Air Force Station, a Defense Early Warning Line facility.

The historical lighthouse at Cape Sarichef was the most westerly and most isolated lighthouse in North America. The current unmanned light marks the northwest entrance to Unimak Pass, the main shipping passage through the Aleutian Islands along the great circle route between North American and Asia. The original light station was built in 1903 and consisted of a wooden tower on an octagonal building, 45 feet (14 m) high and 126 feet (38 m) above the sea, and was first used on July 1, 1904. The lighthouse was known for its extreme isolation, which precluded regular resupply. Mail and supplies were not received for months at a time because of the notoriously bad weather, sea ice, and a hazardous beach landing. From August 1912 to June 1913, the lighthouse received no supplies at all. Because of these working conditions, civilian lightkeepers got one full year off every 4 years of service. In 1921, radiotelephone transmitting and receiving stations were installed by the U.S. Navy at Cape Sarichef and Scotch Cap Light Stations, only 16 miles (26 km) apart, allowing the lightkeepers to communicate with each other and with ships at distances of up to 165 miles (266 km). Both stations also exchanged messages with the naval radio station at Dutch Harbor. When a supply boat landing was impossible at Cape Sarichef, the boat was instructed by radiotelephone or encoded message to land at Scotch Cap. The mail and urgent supplies were then sent overland by one of the keepers. In 1946, a tsunami destroyed the lighthouse at Scotch Cap. In 1950, the Cape Sarichef light station was rebuilt with a short hexagonal tower placed at one end of the existing fog signal building. A LORAN transmitting station was added to help ships and aircraft obtain an accurate position. A crew of 21 men each served a one-year tour of duty at the LORAN station. In 1979, the facility was discontinued including the termination of the LORAN, fog signal, and lighthouse. A steel skeleton tower was erected adjacent to the old tower with a new automated light.

In 1958, the U.S. Air Force built a Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line facility at Cape Sarichef, one of 23 DEW Line stations in Alaska, 68 in Canada, 4 in Greenland, one in Iceland, and one in the Faroe Islands. This system of radar stations was established to detect incoming Soviet bombers during the Cold War, and provide early warning for a land based invasion. The radar station at Cape Sarichef was colocated with a White Alice communication facility on a ridge approximately 2 miles (3.2 km) inland from the cape and connected by road to the Coast Guard light station. A primitive road navigable by Weasel connected both stations to an airfield at Sennett Point with two gravel runways about 1.3 miles (2 km) southeast from the cape, one about 1900 feet (579 m) long and the other 3500 feet (1067 m) long. The DEW radar station was crewed by 25 men that kept constant watch on the Russian Siberian coast. The DEW station was closed in 1969, ownership of the site was transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and is managed by the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. As of 2019, site remediation is being managed by the State of Alaska. Read more here and here. Explore more of Cape Sarichef and Unimak Island here:

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